Reflections on Kathryn Davis ’28


Kathryn Davis ’28 and her Wellesley presidents. From left, Nan Keohane ’61, me, and Diana Chapman Walsh ’66.

I was saddened to learn that Kathryn Wasserman Davis ’28 passed away this morning. When I first met Kathryn, I was immediately struck by her quick wit, her charm, and her undying devotion for Wellesley. Like so many, I was inspired by her vim and vigor—and this was when she was 102 years old! Our world has been forever changed because of Kathryn.

Kathryn was the quintessential Wellesley woman—she approached life with selflessness and grace, zest and zeal. She had an insatiable appetite for learning that extended well past her 90s. At age 91, she took up kayaking and paddled her way through the Hudson River and the coast of Maine and nearby lakes. At age 96, only after a hip fracture prevented her from playing tennis, she began painting. Not only did she learn the art, she mastered it. Dozens of her paintings filled her home in Hobe Sound, Florida, and she exhibited her lovely work over the last 10 years.

There are so many stories that exemplify her marvelous personality—and her love of Wellesley. In this blog, I will share some of those stories. I hope that the Wellesley community also will share their own memories and stories of Kathryn with one another, and through the comments section on this blog.

When I first met Kathryn, I was struck by her charm and graciousness. The second time I saw Kathryn, I understood how impressive she truly was. In 2008, at the dinner celebrating my inauguration as president of Wellesley, Kathryn gave a speech and delighted the audience with her kind and welcoming words. But it turned out that she wasn’t a scheduled speaker. Surprising me and all those who had organized the event, she got up to the podium and spoke extemporaneously and quite eloquently.

Kathryn loved Wellesley with all of her heart. “Wellesley to me was heaven on earth,” she often said of her time as a student here. Wellesley was already a part of Kathryn even before she entered as a first year student in 1924. Her aunt Cora graduated in 1895, her mother, Edith, in 1897, her sister Margaret in 1922, and her cousin Agnes in 1924.

At 106 years old, she was our oldest known living alumna, and she was also one of our most loyal. For nearly 85 years, Kathryn was committed to higher education and service to her community. A Trustee Emerita (she served on the Wellesley College Board of Trustees from 1984 to 2002), she was a longtime volunteer for our Office for Resources and was actively involved in the Alumnae Association for many years. While living in Switzerland in the early 1970s, Kathryn started the Wellesley Club of Switzerland and hosted an annual luncheon for Wellesley students and alumnae in the area. At her most recent reunion, her 80th in 2008, she received the Alumnae Association’s Syrena Stackpole Award to honor her longstanding devotion to her alma mater. I know she very much looked forward to attending her 85th reunion this June, having solidified many months ago her plans to attend.

Through her philanthropy, Kathryn had a lasting impact on Wellesley, having contributed more than $50 million to the College over her lifetime. Her incredible generosity, and that of her late husband, Shelby Cullom Davis, established the Davis Museum and Cultural Center in 1993. Her philanthropy also supported many other pursuits in which she believed, including financial aid for students, global education initiatives, professorships in Asian Studies and Slavic Studies, and restoring the campus landscape. Specifically, her vision enabled Wellesley to return Alumnae Valley—which was a parking lot at the time—to its original beauty, with the creation of the Davis Parking Facility in 2005.

My visits with Kathryn—in Maine, in Florida, and in New York—were always memorable. The first time I went to her house for dinner she had invited another scientist so I “would have someone to talk to.” She hoped I wouldn’t mind. The “other” scientist was Jim Watson (of Watson and Crick). I didn’t mind.

The last time she came to campus, this past September, she insisted on taking a boat ride on Lake Waban. I will forever hold in my mind the image of Kathryn—a beautiful 105-year-old woman—enjoying a glorious fall day on Lake Waban. Last summer, I had the pleasure of having lunch with her at her home in Maine. She regaled me with stories of her classes and her beloved Claflin Hall. She told the most wonderful stories—from her time at Wellesley and her experiences and travels around the world—each complete with incredible detail and color.

Indeed, Kathryn’s life was filled with interesting experiences around the world, beginning at a young age. In her New Year’s letter to me, she commented that 2012 was perhaps the first time in 100 years that she did not travel internationally. Kathryn’s love of travel is attributable to her mother. As Kathryn explained in 1988 in an interview to document her oral history for the College, “My father always wanted to buy a summer home where the family would settle for the summer. Mother said, ‘Oh, no. We have to travel every summer and show the children the world.’” After World War I, the family began traveling to Europe in the summers.

Kathryn subsequently spent the vast majority of her life traveling abroad. In 1929, she took her first trip to Russia, traveling through the Caucasus Mountains on horseback with a group including her sister that was led by an anthropology professor—an adventure in which their food and horses were stolen by bandits. “We ate wild berries for breakfast and spit-roasted mountain goat for dinner,” she told The Moscow Times in 2002. “And I couldn’t have been happier.” Kathryn subsequently returned to Russia more than 30 times, including a trip in 1997 with Marshall Goldman, the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor Emeritus, who led a group from Beijing to Moscow, by way of Mongolia and Siberia via train.

That first trip to Russia in 1929 had a profound influence on Kathryn, broadening her view of life and the world, she said. After that trip, Kathryn, an English major at Wellesley, subsequently earned a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of Geneva. Her PhD thesis was on The Soviets at Geneva, in which she correctly predicted—although controversially at the time—that the Soviet Union would join the League of Nations.

Kathryn was a self-described pacifist, as evidenced by the 100 Projects for Peace that she established on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2007. (The Projects for Peace initiative, open to students around the country, funds creative student initiatives throughout the world focused on building peace in the 21st century. Every year since 2007, Wellesley students have been awarded funding for their peace projects.) In 2007, when she received the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, Kathryn spoke about the need to build peace around the world: “My many years have taught me that there will always be conflict. It’s part of human nature. But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature,” she said. “My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, and therefore let us take advantage of today to be as useful as possible.”

Kathryn’s commitment to peace, justice, and art can be seen in her most recent gift to the College. This spring, a “Davis Peace Project” banner will be installed on an exterior wall of the Davis Museum portraying a dove and an olive branch. That banner will complement Charming, an indoor installation of origami hummingbirds—symbolizing creatures who make change through tenacity and persistence, little by little—that now hangs in the Davis. It is a most fitting gift from Wellesley’s own hummingbird, as Kathryn referred to herself.

Ever the graceful Wellesley woman, Kathryn always kept an open mind about people. Even when she disagreed with someone, she had the ability—and the willingness—to see and appreciate their point of view, always maintaining an air of dignity and respect. That openness translated to Kathryn’s personal philosophy. As she would say: keep listening, keep learning, keep loving, keep laughing, and keep making new friends.

Through her diplomacy, her charm, her philanthropy, and her commitment to the causes in which she believed, Kathryn made this world a better place. Wellesley, and the world, has lost a friend, a model citizen, and a champion for peace.

We should all be so fortunate to live a life as full as Kathryn’s.

23 Responses to Reflections on Kathryn Davis ’28

  • Linda Kosinski says:

    Dear President Bottomly,

    Your kind and thoughtful reflections of Kathryn Wasserman had me choking back tears. She seems to have been a most wonderful woman and a true Wellesley woman. Her spirit and zest for life are a true inspiration. In your descriptions of meetings and dinners with her, she sounds as though she had a lot of spunk, well into her 100’s. Image that. You were blessed to have met and known such a woman. As a first year Wellesley Davis Scholar, hearing the stories of her life, inspire me.

    My sympathies go out to you, her family, her friends, and those who have been touched by her life.


    Linda Kosinski
    Davis Scholar

    • Pat Colagiuri '55 says:

      Dear President Bottomly,
      Although I never knew Kathryn well, I have always been grateful to have known her at all. She was one in a million. Every year when there would be something about her in Wellesley magazine, or in the newspapers, I felt delighted to see that she was still the incredible lady I had been fortunate enough to have known many years ago.
      My deepest sympathy to her family. She will be greatly missed by countless people all over the world.
      Pat Colagiuri ’55

  • What a beautiful tribute to this remarkable woman! I hope I have the good fortune to be a 105-year old alumna insisting on a boat ride on Lake Waban.

  • Nancy Corcoran says:

    I envy you your friendship with Kathryn. Last year one of my Newman students, a Russian major, told me about Kathryn and the translation work she was doing with Ms. Davis. I was captivated. Thank you for recapturing the allure! Nancy Corcoran, csj

  • Nicole Deterding '03 says:

    As a student, I was a direct beneficiary of Mrs. Davis’s generosity, traveling to Siberia to do fresh water ecology experiments and meet with stakeholders of Lake Baikal on the inaugural Baikal trip, Summer 2001. Sending a sociology major on such a trip can only be described as a quintessential liberal arts experience, and I have many fond memories form our nearly 3 weeks in Russia, which happened to be my first time traveling out of the country.

    I’ll miss seeing Mrs. Davis at reunion this year, but will always remember her generosity to the college–and to me– fondly!

  • Grace Y. Toh says:

    What a remarkable woman and what an incredible legacy she has left behind. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends around the world.

    Thank you, Kathryn Davis, for being such a wonderful role model for so many of us. We will always remember and treasure you.

    Grace Y. Toh
    Wellesley Class of 1983

  • Paula Cobb says:

    Dear President Bottomly,

    I am so sadden to hear about the passing of Ms Davis. I am a member of the Wellesley College Club of the palm Beaches and had the pleasure of dining next to her at some of the functions in years past. She was such a beautiful and kind person. She was so full of life and so generous as I also was one of the blessed students in the Davis Scholar program. I did get the chance to thank her for that personally and I will never forget how proud and happy she was to help students like me continue their education. I was thrilled when she came to any of the events and just be in her presence.

    She beamed with such light and sweetness. She will be missed by all who were blessed enough to be touched in some way by her presence on this earth. My heartfelt thoughts go out to her family and friends and all those who knew her.

    Paula Cobb
    Davis Scholar 94

  • Deana Smythe Healy says:

    What a lovely reflection on Kathryn Davis’ life and contribution to Wellesley. Thank you for sharing these stories – very inspiring and moving. My sympathies to her family and friends. The Wellesley community has been so fortunate to count her among us.

    Deana Smythe Healy ’90

  • Laura Hauer Milmoe, CE Davis, 1976 says:

    What a beautiful tribute to an amazing Wellesley Woman! I so appreciate learning about the life of Kathryn Wasserman Davis, and give thanks for having been a 1976 graduate of the then “new” Continuing Education Program which bears her name.

    My condolences to her family and friends are coupled with the recognition that her lasting presence among us has impacted all of our lives in such a meaningful way. Through her example, may we all seek peace. Thank you Kathryn Wasserman Davis.

    With respect and in appreciation,
    Laura Hauer Milmoe, C.E. Davis, Class of 1976

  • Kelly Suzanne Saulsberry says:

    Dear President Bottomly,

    I’m sorry to hear about Kathryn Davis’ passing. She sounds like she was an incredibly brilliant, dynamic, and engaging woman. Her legacy lives on at Wellesley in numerous ways. I admire people who “keep listening, keep learning, keep loving, keep laughing, and keep making new friends” throughout their lives. Your tribute to her was beautifully written and brought her passion, creativity, and personality to life. While reading it, I felt like I knew her, even though I didn’t. Although I’m sad that Wellesley’s oldest living alumna is now gone, the indelible mark she made on the College and people’s lives remains. Thank you for painting such a beautiful portrait of her life and your encounters with her.

  • Rumi Malott Morales says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about this remarkable lady. As a student representative to the Board of Trustees in the mid ‘90s, I vividly remember Kathryn Wasserman Davis – as well as the wonderful Elizabeth Kaiser Davis – and thought that if I wanted to be a Wellesley College Trustee in the future, I might as well change my name to last Davis! — or do something extraordinary with my life. Kathryn obviously accomplished both and I’m proud to have been given the opportunity to interact with her.

    Wellesley College provides us all with the tools to build whatever we desire, and when I was a student looking at a distinguished alumna like Kathryn, it seemed like a given that we would all become her. But as the years have ticked on since my graduation, I understand much more intimately that the path to serve, not to be served, requires a lot of hard work, self-belief, and perseverance. To think that Kathryn kept up her gusto and challenged herself for eighty-five years following her graduation is an inspiration and clear call to us other alumnae to keep learning and keep giving.

  • Kathryn would have been 90 when I had lunch with her. I told her how significant the then new Davis Museum had been for me as an older, busy, and stressed Davis scholar. When I discovered the work of Agnes Martin her light-filled inspiring quietly mottled grid-like canvas became my sanctuary there in the main exhibit space. I spoke of what I knew about Martin’s influence as the oldest and last surviving one of the NY abstract-expressionists, how she had returned to painting after many years and after moving to New Mexico. She assumed I was an art major and I rued in that moment that I had instead come to Wellesley, home of the Stone Center, to study Gestalt psychology, my passionate way to build peace in the world! She welcomed this news and inquired more. I’m now struck by how little I asked about her exciting life. Still, so thrilled to have benefited so greatly from her philanthropy and the pleasure of her company!

  • I am deeply saddened by the death of Kathryn Wasserman Davis. I had the pleasure of visiting her in her home and the great pleasure of being with her many times. Her daughter, Diana Davis Spencer, is a close friend of mine. For the College’s celebration of Kathryn Davis’ 90th birthday, I re-wrote the Alma Mater (“To Kathryn Davis, Wellesley’s daughter, all together join and sing…etc.”) and sang it at the Alumnae Association’s party for her. I went to D.C. for Di’s birthday a couple of years ago, and had the pleasure of sitting next to Kathryn Davis at lunch. She, as many of you know, had a marvelous, dry sense of humor. And she was as sharp as could be! The College has lost a good friend and supporter, but her legacy will go on forever.

  • Back somewhere in the ’80s, when Kathryn Wasserman Davis was “only” in HER late 80’s, she was one of our fellow travelers on a Wellesley cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It was her umpteenth trip to Russia, and she was as enthusiastic about it as if it were the first. Her vivacious young companion, who always kept a loving and teasing eye on her, called her Kathryn the Greatest. Indeed she was. A great lady, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, with immense dignity combined with a sense of fun and adventure, an irresistible combination. Wellesley is blessed to have numbered her among its daughters.

  • Linda Siptroth '79 says:

    Dear President Bottomly,

    Thank you for sharing your remembrances of Kathryn Wasserman Davis in this beautiful tribute. You’ve captured so well her zest for life, the scope of her interests and her creative generosity. I hope the work supported through her 100 Projects for Peace initiative is being well documented; it would be wonderful to review all that continues to be accomplished because of her vision. And shouldn’t all alums who reach their 105th birthday now be offered a boat ride on Lake Waban in her honor?

  • Jill Harrison Vassar '92 says:

    I had the pleasure of serving on the Wellesley Board of Trustees with Kathryn in 1992-1995. I was the Young Alumna Trustee and she was the grande dame. Always a joy to visit with and always sharp as a tack, she was kind and generous and oh, so devoted to Wellesley. I’ve always been grateful that our time on the Board overlapped and have been astounded these past 18 years to continue reading about her travels and adventures!

    One of my favorite stories to tell to Wellesley friends who know my love of Texas was about Kathryn teasing me about having a “gin and tonic” at a Board meeting. It must have been a winter meeting because she turned her head and quipped, “Now, Jill, that is a summer drink”. And I answered, “Well, Kathryn, it’s always summer in Texas”! Of course, she was delighted with my response and once again, oh, so gracious.

    Wellesley has lost a great friend and incredible leader. I will be toasting her tonight with my cocktail.

  • Eleanor Holcombe Friedman '62 says:

    I had the pleasure of experiencing Katheryn Davis’ love of Wellesley and generous hospitality when I was a younger woman, new to living in Lausanne, Switzerland from 1972 – 1976, I had been fairly active in Pittsburgh and national Wellesley volunteer work and was working at settling my family in a place with a new language, schools, few volunteer oportunities and no Wellesley presence. I received a letter from the Alumnae Office asking me if I would “start a Wellesley Club of Switzerland”! Katheryn Davis’ husband Shelby was the US Ambassador to Switzerland at the time and they lived in a beautiful residence in Bern. I went to work with the telephone and a rudimentary data base, and Katheryn hosted our first meeting ever, a lovely luncheon in her home. We were some twelve or so Wellesley women who came together by car, train, and bus; thus began new friendships and the initial get together of the brand new Wellesley Club of Switzerland. Katheryn was in her element, justifiably proud of her part in creating a new outpost of her beloved college. I have always remembered her enthusiasm and generosity – a true Wellesley woman!

  • Craig N. Murphy (M. Margaret Ball Professor of International Relations, Wellesley College) says:

    One of the things that we at College often take for granted about Dr Davis is just that — she had a doctoral degree. In fact, she was one of the very first women in world to receive one in the field of international relations. Her 1934 thesis and book, on the Soviet Union’s interaction with the League of Nations from 1919-1933, remains a classic and — due to its pioneering combination of documentary analysis and direct observation — is still the first place scholars go if they are interested in the topic. It also made an important contribution to theory because the USSR (like the United States and like Germany) remained outside the League for most (or all, in the US case) of its history, yet, nevertheless, all three countries played an absolutely central role in the technical cooperation supported by the League from the very beginning, something for which many “mainstream” theories of the day simply could not account.

    I first met Kathryn Davis when she came to my 200-level class on International Organization shortly after I began teaching at the College in the early 1980s. I remember wondering if this (seemingly) middle-aged, incredibly engaged woman could possibly the same woman who wrote that first-hand book on the complex technical cooperation at the League some 50 years before. Of course, she not only was, she remained very ahead of me and many of her other younger colleagues in the field for many years afterward, especially in her thinking about how international cooperation was likely to evolve.

    We remained professional colleagues, never becoming close friends, but my wife, JoAnne Yates, and I were always happy to see her in Wellesley and on Mount Desert Island at events for the College of the Atlantic, for which she was also the most generous of supporters.

    JoAnne and I are now working together on a history of private international regulatory standard setting since the 1890s. A few weeks ago, I was in Geneva in the archives of the International Electrotechnical Commission and JoAnne was in one of the libraries at Stanford reading the minutes of the meetings on avoiding radio interference from the 1930s through the 1960s. On a Skype call, JoAnne remarked at how astonishing the US-Soviet cooperation in the Sputnik-era had been on this issue, which was seemingly one of the highest politics. Then we remembered that many of the characters involved then had been cooperating since the 1930s, and that Davis had already explained why that cooperation had been possible!

    The field of International Relations has lost an important pioneer.

  • Grace Miller Dingee says:

    A question for Eleanor Holcombe Friedman: Is there still a Wellesley Club in Switzerland? I am Swiss by blood and high school education (Zürich), American by birth, and travel to Switzerland and Germany once a year. I would be interested in such a group, if it still meets.

    Grace Miller Dingee, Welleslely ’54

  • Pauline W. Parker '46 ( Polly Whitaker '46)) says:

    What an astonishing woman!!

  • Amie Boyce James, '74 says:

    President Bottomly’s reflections provide a wonderful picture of Kathryn Wasserman Davis. Thank you, President Bottomly, and everyone else who has been adding comments, for deepening my appreciation of someone who truly added joy to the world.

  • Paraskevi (Voula) Galinou says:

    Dear President Bottomly,
    I was moved by your recollections of a fascinating woman. Back in the ’70s, probably in the Spring of ’77, she was at the College and met with a group of “international” students in Slater. I recall her references to my country’s involvement in the League of Nations story and during the Paris Treaty Convention, by way of meeting a student from Greece. She had a country specific story to tell to other colleagues ranging from Turkey to India. Needless to say, it was the first time I had heard anything on the matter and I don’t think I was the only one taken by surprise. She talked a lot about women’s education and heavily on what we now think of low level international policy. Her words on how people from various cultures get to know each other and how that helps in rethinking each one’s stories still echo in my ears. So many Wellesley experiences need a stimulus to become recollections.
    No matter how saddened, pride for the woman she has been, for all she accomplished and the meaningful ways she was able to share has made my evening.
    Thank you, thank you!

  • Judith de Barany '77 says:

    Kathryn Davis was the reason I went to Wellesley College. When I was 15, I had the opportunity to talk with her over the course of several evenings at my aunt’s house in Zurich. The topic of US Colleges was on my mind and naturally, she suggested I consider Wellesley.

    Various heated dinner discussions showed Kathryn Davis to be smart, funny, always curious, perceptive and deeply knowledgeable about international relations. She didn’t take herself too seriously, could make her point and get others to change their minds while retaining her femininity and a twinkle in her eye.

    It occurred to me that College must be a bit like a factory; to see how good the factory is one should carefully examine the end product. I figured that if I were to turn out half as well as she had by the time I reached her age, then I could feel pleased with my education. So I chose to go to Wellesley.

    Kathryn Davis changed the course of my life for the better and I am saddened by the news of her death.

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